A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith
By Brian D. McLaren
320 pp. HarperOne. $24.99
When I praise Plato and defend my teaching Republic to college freshmen, I often say that Plato’s excellence lies not in the fact that he’s always right but that when he’s wrong, he’s wrong in compelling ways, ways that inspire me to imagine a better alternative. While Brian McLaren is no Plato, parts of his most recent book A New Kind of Christianity have that Platonic character to them, getting things very wrong in ways that set me thinking about how I’d improve on his points. Other parts of the book resonate quite nicely with things that I try to do as a Christian teacher or realize now that I should try to do. But other parts still, alas, smack of the sleight-of-hand, the well-poisoning, and the other dirty trickery that make me mistrust apologetics literature of various sorts. In other words, A New Kind of Christianity is a complex book, not consistently excellent but nonetheless very helpful in places.
Brian McLaren Gets it Right
As Phil Rutledge pointed out in response to our podcast on the Haiti Earthquake, when I talk about the Bible, I tend to talk not about one unified document but a library, various not only in cosmetic details but in a more robust sense of genre, asking certain questions in this book that lie out of bounds in other books, offering teachings here that seem to stand at least in tension with teachings there. (I should note the obvious, namely that I do not speak for the other Christian Humanists on this point or necessarily on any given point.) I tend to think that the flexibility of such a collection is part of the Bible’s strength, that the practice of being Christian community is richer because Christian teachers can pull from a broad range of resources depending on the contingencies of the moment without having to pretend that every moment is the same as every other moment. When we need a text that shakes us out of complacency, the Bible has a book for that. When we lean over the precipice of despair, the Bible has a book for that. And so on. I think that McLaren offers a handy next step in that thought process, noting that the Bible is a true collection of texts precisely because of the “spaces between” those strong positions of Deuteronomy or 1 Chronicles on one hand and Ecclesiastes or Job on the other.
Furthermore, McLaren highlights the God-defining character of Christ and insists that the Palestinian Jew Jesus of Nazareth and not the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover is a better starting point for disciplined reflection upon the character of God. I know that making the historical Jesus that radically central flies in the face of much systematic theology (including that of Thomas Aquinas, one of my favorites), but I agree with McLaren that such a move is ultimately more faithful to the gospel of John among other Scriptural witnesses.
Finally, when McLaren gives advice to parishioners and clergy who find themselves resonating with progressive ideas, and his counsel leans consistently towards humble and peace-seeking measures rather than grandstanding, intellectual and moral arrogance, and other vices that so often characterize folks who think they’ve gotten something right while their neighbors still get it wrong. His exhortation to “be a blessing” is probably my favorite part of the book.
I noted above, and I write again, this book does get some things very right, and by no means should anyone think that it’s error, error, error all the way down.
Brian McLaren Gets it Wrong
That said, as someone who loves intellectual history and who values some degree of historical precision, I do blame this book for playing fast and loose with historical identifications for the sake of scoring cheap rhetorical points. One of the jokes that was current during my days at The Ooze forums was that the Emergent words for “really quite bad” were “modern” and “modernist,” and the word for “so much better, don’t you think?” was “postmodern.” McLaren seems to have left that ugly and misleading binary pair only to settle on another pair, just as ugly and even more misleading (and also a binary that I started encountering back in seminary), the Manichean dualism of “the Bible” and “Greco-Roman religion.” Resisting the temptation to examine every instance of “Greco-Roman” meaning just plain “bad,” I’ll point out a few that drew a chuckle from me for their historical naivete: Greco-Roman religion, apparently, has no place in it for homosexuality (175–apparently all of that Athenian praise for pederasty as superior to love-of-women doesn’t count), does not allow for multiple religions (212–never mind the Roman Empire’s grand scheme of syncretism that incorporated pantheons as diverse as the Celts’ and the Egyptians’), and stands as a pernicious idol called Theos, who stands as enemy to the Biblical god Elohim (65–I suppose the New Testament authors didn’t get the memo that the Greek language had that idol mixed in there).
The content of McLaren’s “Greco-Roman” tradition came about as the fruit of a conversation he relates in which an epiphany came to him, namely that the broad outlines of the traditional Evangelical narrative (he extends it to Catholic and Magesterial Protestant traditions as well) derive not from Biblical narratives but from Plato. Unfortunately, McLaren casts Plato only as the first step in a larger metanarrative, and that move is what makes things go downhill in a hurry. In McLaren’s “six-line narrative” to which he refers again and again as he digs into his ten questions, Plato is only the first stage in the grand narrative, ruined when the world falls from Platonic perfection (which sounds more like Plotinus’s realm of Ideas) into the “storied” world of Aristotle.
I’m certain Aristotle would have been surprised to find out that he was writing a simple sequel to Plato rather than supplanting his philosophy, but even more surprising to Alexander’s tutor would no doubt be that, according to McLaren, Aristotle held that forms do not have any existence, properly speaking, save as mental constructs. (If Dante’s right that Aristotle is in Limbo, where he might converse with future ages’ non-Christian philosophers, no doubt someone has told him by now that the forms as purely mental was actually one of William of Ockham’s central contributions to philosophy in the fourteenth century.) Perhaps more surprising still would be that, after dwelling in the Aristotle trench, the eternal souls that Plato does talk about (though sometimes in terms of reincarnation) return to a “Platonic” stasis, some by achieving salvation (another category rather alien to Plato and to Aristotle) and then reaching a final Platonic (neo-Platonic?) ideal, and some by falling into what McLaren calls “Greek Hades,” a construct that of course predates Plato and Aristotle by a few centuries and has little to do, in the texts I’ve read, with punishing earthly evil. If one says anything about Homer’s Hades, one should say that it’s terrifyingly egalitarian, and that’s what Achilles hates so much–he’s forgotten just as readily as all of the other shades about him.
If all of that sounds familiar through the haze of misused Greek texts, it’s because the “Greco-Roman narrative” that McLaren would impose upon Plato and Aristotle (the tag team!) is far more akin to what Origen, Augustine, and other Christian writers would call the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Although certain iterations of that narrative sequence deserve criticism, McLaren does nobody any favors (especially those of us who love teaching Plato) by inventing a syncretic thought-system that simply does not exist in classical texts and then loading that cumbersome burden on some of Christianity’s best tutors.
As a passing comment in the introduction to one of his chapters, McLaren notes that, although he’s not been a seminarian, he has read “thousands of theology books” (78). I suppose my own counsel for aspiring Christian writers is that we read fewer books, perhaps dozens, but take the time that good books deserve to understand and live with them.
Brian McLaren Gets Sneaky
Given the unhappy choice between accusing a writer I like (and I do like Brian McLaren) of duplicity and insinuating that the same writer has forgotten or misread, I’ll usually err on the side of charity and say that, for example, McLaren probably read some really bad books about Greco-Roman philosophy instead of reading translations of Plato and Aristotle themselves, and that likely led to his strange construction “Greco-Roman.” But there are moments of this book that make me deeply suspicious, and although I’d prefer not to approach people I like with suspicion… well, here goes.
In an early section of the book, McLaren relates a talk he gave at a conference in which he lined up seven people on the stage, each representing a historical figure. In a diagram that I won’t reproduce here (I’m going to be cross-posting this review, and so I’m trying to keep html to a minimum), McLaren labels seven stick figures as follows:
Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Erasmus, Calvin or Wesley or Newton, Pope Benedict or Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham
After he briefly notes that folks who get their theology from this stream aren’t “directly seeing Jesus” (36), he gives the people in the row a different set of names:
Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Amos or Isaiah or Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus
His point seems to be that the reading of Biblical texts that will follow in his book, unlike the “Greco-Roman” version of things, would work forwards up to Jesus rather than backwards to Jesus, therefore giving a different sort of story.
The problems are obvious, of course: without even reaching for my bookshelf, I could tell you in which books Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, and Pope Benedict talk about the six figures that McLaren seems to think he’s rediscovering. Beyond that, McLaren’s progressive theology, a tradition that doubtless deserves a hearing in its own right and on its own terms, has its own “hidden six” that McLaren never names. So if I might offer one possible lineup, some whose influence I detect globally and others with page numbers where I detected some of their influence:
Jesus, Vico (50-51), Hegel (239), Marx (239) or Darwin (14-15), Nietzsche or Wellhausen, Foucault (31) or Freud or Bultmann, Ehrman or Crossan or Borg
Such is not to say that the Traditionalist Six automatically deserves more of a hearing than do the Progressive Six. But I do think that anyone, left-wing or right-wing, should have the honesty to name one’s own influences rather than pitting one’s own Bible-loving self against one’s traditions-of-men enemies. All of us who come to the Christian tradition know Adam and David; let’s have some honest conversation about how we’re using them and how they influence us.
Beyond the invisible-influence suspicion, I had some real troubles with the ways that McLaren talks about professionally trained authority figures. In one passage he would say that folks who hold seminary credentials likely have good intentions but, because of their need to support themselves and because they haven’t progressed along his (Maslow-flavored–this is another instance of invisible influence) color-coded scale of theological awareness. In another he would refer to clergy-types as prison guards (31) who are keeping folks from their spiritual freedom. And with regards to formal training itself, McLaren in this book, as in his other books, makes a point of boasting that he’s not had formal seminary training (though apparently he’s read thousands of theology books), but late in the game, giving advice to clergy who think their congregations might be interested in moving up a step on the Maslow-McLaren rainbow, writes thus:
Get a consultant. There is enormous power in having the guidance of a wise, gifted, and experienced person who remains outside your congregational or denominational system. Good consultants are expensive, I know, but so are good heart surgeons, and the two have a lot in common. (247)
First of all, as someone who loves Plato (the real Plato, not the one whom McLaren invents earlier in the book), I immediately recognized Plato’s community-leader-as-physician riff, and I chuckled (just for a second) that McLaren was now out-Platonizing Plato. For those who have not read much Plato, his argument for appointing the best and the brightest to administer a community rather than trusting such things to democracy involves comparing justice to medicine and noting that very few people want medical decisions made on the basis of popular opinion. I would have expected such an argument to extend to ordained and seminary-trained clergy rather than freelance consultants, given the rather structured and hierarchical world of heart surgeons, but I was still chuckling.
But then, once the immediate amusement wore off, I remembered the mercenary and self-serving motives assigned to folks who actually dedicate their lives to one place as pastors and priests, and I was quite angry that he reserved none of that fury for hirelings who jet around the country collecting “consultant fees.” For whatever reason, my angry self thought, McLaren prefers temporary fee-grabbers to those who practice the old monastic virtue of stability.
Then I realized that both Brian McLaren and Tony Jones pitch themselves as consultants, and after a bit of Google searching, I realized that Doug Pagitt and Len Sweet also advertise themselves as consultants. That’s when the anger turned to suspicion.
Please understand that I’m an equal-opportunity religious-consultant-hater; if Mark Driscoll or Jim Dobson or Ken Ham do the same, I don’t like that either. As an Aristotelian (the Aristotle whose Nicomachean Ethics I love, not the Ockham-Aristotle that McLaren invented), I believe that leadership happens best, especially for communities dedicated to reconstituting the body of the Cosmic King (that would be churches, folks), when those communities look within rather than shuffling through resumes, and I’m inclined to hold consultants far below the permanent-hire-from-out-of-town in terms of the goods they do for a community. And given that McLaren in other places fires pot shots at the folks who dedicate their lives to particular communities in particular places, I couldn’t help but continue in my suspicion.
I realize that not everybody is as suspicious of out-of-town “experts” as I am, and I’d be fine if McLaren were consistently sanguine. But as it stands, it looks like he decided to use this book, which pitches itself as a moment of honesty, as a platform to promote himself and his Emergent Village buddies while calling dedicated ordained folks prison guards, and that’s an inexcusable bit of duplicity.
Brian McLaren Gets the Nod
As I wrote at the beginning of this marathon review, a book’s excellence lies not in its being right but in its being interesting. Given that criterion, I’d still recommend this book for folks interested in reading some philosophical-progressive alternatives to modern evangelicalism. There are some moments of sloppy thinking and others of outright self-serving dishonesty, but on balance, I can accept those sorts of things in a book that spurs me to think for a while, and I think that this book did. If you run into folks like the ones in the book’s opening anecdote, folks who tell you that Brian McLaren is too dangerous a writer for Christians to read without throwing their souls into peril, do those folks the courtesy of saying what the old lady in McLaren’s story told him: “I don’t see what the fuss is about” (2).